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April 3, 2006
INDIANAPOLIS - There go the Florida Gators again, runnin' it up on their way to a national championship.
In basketball, believe it or not. Against UCLA, of all teams.
And with a tennis player's son as the star.
Joakim Noah dominated the Bruins on Monday night with 16 points, nine rebounds and a record six blocks to key a 73-57 blowout for Florida's first title in that other sport.
''It's like I'm in a cloud,'' Noah said. ''Not only does this feel good, but it smells good and it tastes good. I can't even describe it.''
The Gators and all their fans would certainly agree, especially after watching this runaway - a pick-your-score kind of game that was decided early.
Many thought it couldn't be done 12 years ago when Billy Donovan took over a basketball program that lived well in the shadows of Steve Spurrier's brash, high-flying football juggernaut. Now, Spurrier is long gone and the Gators have as many national championships in hoops as they do in football.
''It's undescribable,'' said Noah, who now will decide whether to turn pro, ''better than I've ever felt in my life.''
For 40 lopsided minutes, the Gators (33-6) were too big, too long and too quick for UCLA, which came up a win short of its 12th national title on a night when 95-year-old former coach John Wooden watched from a hospital bed in LA. He was admitted for an undisclosed illness that was said not to be serious, but the Bruins didn't try to use that distraction as an excuse.
''Our heart and everything we do on the floor is always a tribute to him, whether he's healthy or not,'' UCLA guard Arron Afflalo said.
Florida and Noah, voted most outstanding player in the Final Four, won by putting on a thorough display of versatility and unselfishness, a trademark of this team all season.
UCLA (32-7) was on a defensive tear coming into the championship game, shutting down LSU's Glen Davis in the semifinals and allowing a total of 90 points in the last two games. Florida, though, was just too much to handle.
The Gators ran to a double-digit lead early and staved off every UCLA run.
Noah capped it off with a monster dunk with 1:09 left. When the buzzer sounded, he lay flat on his back at halfcourt and let the confetti rain on him. His teammates were in a pile a few feet away and Donovan was sharing hugs with his longtime assistant Anthony Grant.
The Gators won this by taking it right to UCLA early, looking inside to Noah, Brewer, Horford and senior Adrian Moss. Unafraid to make the extra pass, even in traffic down low, they finished with 21 assists, eight by point guard Taurean Green. More impressively, 10 came from their frontcourt.
It couldn't have been what UCLA coach Ben Howland expected after Florida's 73-58 win over George Mason in the semis, a game the Gators won from outside and that Humphrey ended early in the second with three straight 3s.
The scrappy Humphrey, the lone junior in a starting lineup full of sophomores, did the honors again in this one, spotting up for open looks against a collapsing defense early in the second half.
His first 3, 80 seconds into the half, gave Florida a 39-25 lead and forced Howland to call timeout. A sloppy offensive possession ensued, then Humphrey came back with another 3.
After Ryan Hollins' dunk, one of the few easy baskets for the Bruins, Brewer hit a 3 to make it 45-27 and prompt yet another Bruins TO.
There was no strategy to stop Noah. The 6-foot-11 forward dunked, swatted shots and dominated the game, much like his dad did during his magical run to the French Open title in 1983.
Noah shot 7-for-9 and also had three assists and a steal. When it was over, the kid ran to the stands to try to find his family.
''I'm so happy,'' Yannick Noah said, wiping away tears from behind his sunglasses. ''I'm so happy for him, but also for all of his friends. They deserve it. It's a beautiful story.''
Noah had five blocks by halftime, already one better than the NCAA championship game record set by Arizona's Loren Woods in 2001, and he finished with 29 for the tournament, shattering Woods' record by five.
Noah altered plenty of shots, too - enough that UCLA big men Hollins, Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute looked covered underneath even when they weren't. That's what happens when you're facing an intimidating inside presence, and Noah was certainly that.
''Defensively, he's just long,'' Afflalo said. ''You know, he has the ability to change shots if he's not blocking them. He plays with a lot of energy.''
His final block came with about 5 minutes left after the Bruins had cut a 20-point deficit to 12. Hollins tried to take it strong as a last-gasp effort to get back in the game. Noah stuffed the shot, grabbed the rebound and stood there calmly waiting for things to clear.
About two minutes later, Florida was back up by 16 and those Gator chomps were starting in earnest all around the RCA Dome.
UCLA had all the history behind it, and a pretty good team, to boot. The Bruins just didn't have enough. Farmar, who chose UCLA over Florida, was their only scoring threat. He finished with 18 points. His backcourt mate, Afflalo, finished with 10, but was shut out in the first half, while this game was getting away.
Florida is still 10 titles behind UCLA, but this was one that should quiet the diehards who said it couldn't be done in Gainesville.
Donovan did it while his old coach at Providence, Rick Pitino, watched from the stands, wearing an orange tie. It was Pitino, now at Louisville, who 12 years ago urged Donovan not to take the Florida job, fearing the commitment simply wasn't there. He wasn't alone. Not even Florida's previous coach, Lon Kruger, said the Gators could sustain in basketball the way they did in football - and Kruger had taken them to the Final Four a few years earlier.
Turns out, there's plenty of money, talent and support to make Florida's ''other'' program run.
''I said Billy, 'They don't have any players. If the AD isn't patient, it'll be a death trap for you,''' Pitino said.
The patience paid off.
''He coached almost the perfect game tonight, offensively and defensively,'' Pitino said.
It wasn't hard with this group of players.
Humphrey ended up with 10 3-pointers during this Final Four and found himself open for most of them.
Horford had seven rebounds and two blocks, and Brewer had seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Moss, the only senior on the roster, had nine points and six rebounds off the bench, almost all in the first half.
Four years ago, he was considered a star of the future. Instead, he was really a very nice piece of a bigger puzzle - a puzzle Donovan put together.
''Our faculty rep said to me before the game that when you start with something from scratch and you build it up to win a championship, that's something special,'' Donovan said.